Do newspaper readers and advertisers really care if a newspaper uses color photographs--or striking drawings, charts, graphs, maps and other visual elements that can make a paper appear more attractive and more carefully designed?
Many editors throughout the country think so.
“The response that we’ve had from readers tells us very, very clearly that that means something to them,” says Christian Anderson, editor of the Orange County Register. “You . . . think about all the terrific work that newspapers do in terms of content . . . and what do people respond to most? ‘Gee, that was a great color picture.’ And they tell us that time and time again. ‘Man, I really like the color in your paper.’ ”
American newspapers have used color sporadically as far back as 1891, but with few exceptions, color was neither common nor of good quality in newspapers until the development of different kinds of presses, computerized scanners and other recent technological advances made it possible.
Some newspapers--the Orange County Register perhaps foremost among them--have made special efforts to buy and master the latest and best color equipment, figuring that good color (and an attractive design) would be the best way to distinguish itself from its major competitor (in the Register’s case, the Los Angeles Times).
Despite recent improvements, large newspapers like the L.A. Times still have trouble sometimes with the quality of their color, in part because they don’t make the same all-out commitment to color, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on news coverage, and in part because they print so many papers every night that they have to run their presses too fast to be able to take full advantage of modern technology. (The faster a press runs, the poorer the quality of reproduction.)
Like most other papers, the L.A. Times has used color first (and most often) in feature sections printed in advance--food and travel, for example--and in sports, where the action best lends itself to exciting color photography.
Editors Hold Back
Many editors are more reluctant about using color--and other new design elements--in their news sections (and, especially, on the front page) for fear of making their papers appear frivolous rather than authoritative.
On occasion, the L.A. Times has experimented with color on its front page, though, and the paper will continue those experiments.
“Color on the news pages of all newspapers is inevitable,” says William F. Thomas, editor of The Times. “But until color photos can be used with the same facility as can the present black-and-white, and until we can be confident of its quality, I think it would be a mistake for a serious newspaper to commit to it on a regular basis. (If you do) . . . you are forced to build your front page--and your public image--around whatever color photographs are available, whether or not they meet the test of news or reader values.
“To me, that’s a distortion of priorities.”
Other editors agree. In fact, that’s exactly the reason the New York Times uses no color at all (except in its Sunday magazine and other special magazine sections).
But some newspapers--the Register, the Seattle Times, and the St. Petersburg Times among them--consistently produce excellent color, and if it isn’t perfect, magazine-quality color, well, the editors think the benefits are well worth the compromise.
James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune, says that when he became editor of the paper in 1981, the Tribune and the rival Sun-Times were “locked in a pretty good struggle and had been for a long, long time.”
“That struggle ended, for all intents and purposes,” Squires says, “when we brought up our color printing plant (in late 1982). Our image in Chicago had been that We were dull and staid, but we changed our image with a color front page and very exciting sports pictures in color. . . .”
The addition of color--combined with a redesign of the paper--"called attention to the fact that the Tribune was changing,” Squires says, and readers (and advertisers) responded enthusiastically.
Widening the Gap
In the three years since the Tribune added color, its daily circulation lead over the Sun-Times has increased 30% and its share of the display advertising dollar has increased 74%, according to figures provided by the Tribune.
Color and redesign alone do not account for the Tribune’s growing competitive edge in Chicago, of course; the historic (and changing) roles of the two papers were critical factors, too. But the new look of the Tribune has clearly contributed significantly to its growing success.
Squires first learned about the advantages (and the dangers) of color when he was editor of the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel for four years before taking over at the Tribune.
Florida newspapers were among the pioneers in the use of newspaper color, and in many instances, Squires recalls, “It softened the front page. You had lots of Page 1 color pictures of pumpkins and icicles hanging off flowers and frost on the oranges. Visually oriented editors . . . wanted to put (these) pictures on the front page just because they were pretty, and that pushed legitimate news photos off the front page"--a problem that was compounded, in the early days of newspaper color, by the early deadlines required to process color.
Squires insists that hasn’t happened at the Tribune.
“We’ve remained a substantive paper, even improved,” he says. “We’re still an in-depth, accurate, complete, credible newspaper . . . but now we’re lively, too . . . visually exciting.”
Squires is not impartial in this assessment, of course. But the Tribune does appear on most lists of the nation’s 10 best newspapers, and most newspaper designers and editors interviewed for this story also listed the Tribune--and Squires’ earlier redesign effort, the Orlando Sentinel--among the best-designed American newspapers. In fact, there was a widespread consensus among the interviewees--more than 75 editors and designers, representing about 30 newspapers--on the best-designed papers.
Roger Fidler, corporate director of graphics and newsroom technology for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, spoke for this consensus when he said:
“The Seattle Times and (Orange County) Register are generally accepted as the two best-looking papers in the country.”
It is no coincidence that--like Squires in Chicago and Orlando--the same man, Christian Anderson, played a major role in the redesign of both papers; Anderson was a high-ranking editor at the Seattle Times from 1977 to 1980 before becoming editor of the Register.
Other papers praised highly for their design include the New York Times, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, Allentown (Pa.) Call, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, St. Petersburg Times, Newsday and Kansas City Times.
Virtually all these papers have several characteristics in common:
- A top editor committed to the importance of attractive design.
- A staff designer with a title and authority--"assistant managing editor for graphics” is the most common title.
- An ongoing design review. (Both the Boston Globe and St. Petersburg Times were redesigned in the 1970s and both are about to redesign again.)
- A practice of treating theiR graphics staffs--artists and photographers--as partners in the journalistic process, rather than as a mere service department summoned at the last minute to illustrate a completed story.
No papers permit their designers to decide unilaterally if and where stories go on the front page--that remains the prerogative of the top editors--but at papers like the Seattle Times and USA Today, designers play a significant role in those decisions, and at these two (and other design-conscious) papers, graphic artists and designers are increasingly involved in the planning of major stories from the moment of conception.
Michael Fancher, managing editor of the Seattle Times, concedes, however, that the paper’s commitment to graphics and design initially created “friction and pressure . . . major divisions in the news department between the word people . . . and the graphics people,” with the “word people” (reporters and editors) fearful that the “graphics people” (designers, artists and photographers) were going to take control of the paper and trivialize their serious journalistic efforts with pretty pictures and fancy design.
“We went through several years of paralysis,” Fancher says.
But the philosophy of the Seattle Times is to publish good stories “in a way that can be visually stunning . . . to stop the reader and then let the words do the job from there,” Fancher says, and the paper has done just that with several well-packaged series on substantive subjects.
Not for All
Different newspapers approach the design question in different ways, though, and most people interviewed for this story said they don’t think more traditional papers, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to emulate such papers as the Seattle Times and Orange County Register in order to look good.
In fact, A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, says that while he favors artfully designed feature sections in his paper, he has deliberately avoided “an over-designed news section” because, “There should be a serendipity about the news sections. . . . I don’t want everything . . . nice and neat and squared off. . . . That’s not the way the news happens. I think a certain unexpectedness or even awkwardness in the news sections is much more interesting.”
The Wall Street Journal has a decidedly different look--neither flashy graphics nor serendipity.
The Journal has no color, no pictures (except on rare occasions) and virtually no variety in its basic appearance from day to day. But it’s a crisp, clean, well-organized paper, and its seemingly prosaic appearance (despite an increasing use of graphics) actually conveys an air of “Republican solidity” that fits its readers like a Brooks Brothers suit, in the words of Roger Black, art director of Newsweek magazine.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Times has often been widely criticized as looking drab and disorganized--and, above all, for having very long stories (like this one) that continue from page to page to page. But critics acknowledge that a paper like the L.A. Times has a different mission and a different constituency than do some of the flashier-looking papers.
“The Los Angeles Times has a history in the community of doing a certain kind of reporting, of being a certain kind of newspaper, and (it) builds up an expectation level and a comfort level with its readers,” says Rob Covey, art director of the Seattle Times. “It . . . shouldn’t (try to copy) . . . Dallas or Seattle or the Wall Street Journal.”
The L.A. Times implemented a redesign program--with the help of a design consultant--in 1979-80, and the paper has continued to re-examine (and to try to improve) its appearance ever since--as witness its attractive, widely acclaimed, daily Olympics section in 1984 and its publication Feb. 9 of an eight-page special report on “Challenger’s Last Flight,” complete with more than 30 photos and informational graphics.
Times editors realize their paper is still not as attractive and well-designed as it should be, however--especially in the main news section, after the first three pages--and a special, top-management committee is studying the configuration of the entire paper even now as a part of an effort to make more improvements.
But there are complications.
Thomas, editor of The Times, is more cautious about design than are his counterparts at most other papers.
“Everybody is concerned about design,” Thomas says. “I am, too, and I have been for a long time. But I see it becoming in more and more newspapers an end in itself, and I see a danger there.
“When you set out to change the design of any part of your newspaper, it seems to me the purpose should be to facilitate readership, to make it easier to read what you are presenting,” Thomas says. “Its main purpose definitely should not be to make bold and flashy statements simply to attract attention--unless that’s the way you want your newspaper to be perceived.”
Meant to Be Read
That is clearly not how Thomas wants the Los Angeles Times to be perceived.
“This is a paper to be read . . . not (just) looked at,” he says.
Many editors who feel the same way about their papers are still more enthusiastic about design than Thomas, though, and their papers reflect that. Moreover, The Times’ commitment to long, comprehensive stories, its policy of having no advertising on Pages 2 and 3 of the main news section--prime advertising spots in most other papers--and its division of the daily paper into at least six sections create special problems in the allocation and, hence, the design of space in the paper.
Despite these problems, The Times--and other newspapers--may ultimately benefit from the next stages in the technological revolution that has already made possible many of the recent changes in newspaper design.
Many papers are already using computers and laser writers to create informational graphics quickly to illustrate breaking news stories, for example. Knight-Ridder newspapers now transmit these computer-generated graphics over the telephone line to each other; Gannett newspapers are experimenting with a similar system.
These graphics can be “edited” by each paper, much as papers now edit stories transmitted by the national wire services. Thus, the Detroit Free Press could create a computerized chart showing automobile industry sales, send that chart over the telephone line to the Miami Herald, where another computer could be used to add information of special interest to Miami readers and to modify the chart to suit the style and preference of Herald editors.
Knight-Ridder is also a pioneer in one of the most talked-about technological phenomena on the journalistic horizon today--"pagination,” a process that enables editors and designers to lay out each day’s paper, an entire page at a time, on a computer screen. Two Knight-Ridder newspapers--the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Pasadena Star-News--already have such a system in place.
“Pagination is a powerful tool for improving the layout and design of the newspaper,” says Larry Allison, editor of the Press-Telegram.
Before pagination, page layout and design at the Press-Telegram was done--as it is still done at most newspapers--by various editors in each section. As at most papers, many of these editors have little aptitude for the job.
Central Design Desk
With pagination, Allison has created a centralized design desk, staffed by editors and designers who lay out all the pages by computer every day, thus achieving a consistency and quality of appearance that were too often missing under the traditional system.
“We took layout out of the hands of (people) . . . who didn’t really . . . even like doing it and put it in the hands of (people) . . . who not only love that type of work but are very good at it,” Allison says.
That, most editors and designers agree, is one of the keys to having a good-looking newspaper--with or without pagination.
Some newspapers redesign in a desperate, last-ditch effort to attract new readers (and advertisers) in a losing competitive situation, but editors increasingly realize that’s too little (or too much) too late. To be successful, newspaper design cannot be a desperation measure--a substitute for substance in a failing paper--any more than it can be a superficial effort grafted awkwardly and halfheartedly onto a successful paper.
Design must be carefully planned and carried out, properly adapted to the individual newspaper and its readership and directed and executed, on a continuing basis, by people who understand and appreciate not only design but, above all, journalism--and the role of the daily newspaper today.
Susanna Shuster of The Times editorial library assisted with research for this story. ATTRACTIVE PAPERS More than 75 newspaper editors and desighers representing about 30 newspapers were asked which American papers they consider the most attractive and best-designed. The two mentioned most often; the Seattle Times and Orange County Register. Others mentioned most often: Allentown (Pa.) Call Chicago Tribune Kansas City Times Newsday Orlando Sentinel St. Petersburg Times Wall Street Journal Boston Globe Dallas Morning News The New York Times Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union USA Today Washington Times